World Cup qualification is now entering the home stretch, so who should be booking hotels in June for St Petersburg and who can slope off to Santa Monica?
Of course hosts Russia will be playing but nobody else is guaranteed a place just yet. It’s business as usual in places (i.e. Germany) but elsewhere there are surprising strugglers.
European Group Qualifying (Group winners qualify 8 best runners up go to 2 legged playoffs)
Sweden pulled off the shock of the tournament to date by beating France In Stockholm and assuming a slender group lead on goal difference. France face a blockbuster against Holland on Thursday- who are yet again in danger of missing out on even a playoff spot. This group will go the wire with Sweden away to Holland on the last day.
Here’s a starter for 10- only 2 teams have 100% qualification records in Europe, Germany are one who’s the other? Incredibly it’s Switzerland. According to Fifa’s World Rankings (which are always proved right) Switzerland are number 4 in the world right now. Whatever the strangeness of Fifa’s formula’s it’s been an impressive campaign from the Swiss who beat European Champions Portugal early on to establish their lead. With both the leaders facing open goal matches this week, it’ll be as your were until the 10th October when the Swiss travel to Portugal for the decider, they’ll likely need a point.
Germany are virtually there- sitting on a 5 point cushion with 4 to play. What makes this group curious is the battle for the playoff spot where Northern Ireland hold a 4 point lead over the Czech Republic. With Germany rolling into Prague on Friday night (that old chestnut) and Will Greigg’s boys away to San Marino a playoff spot is within Northern Ireland’s grasp.
Playoffs: Northern Ireland
The closest group of the lot with Serbia & Ireland tied on 12 points and Wales & Austria 4 points back. The Welsh have struggled with their favourites tag and drawn 5 of their six matches to date, Including of course that ugly clash in Dublin and that sickening injury to Seamus Coleman. The game of the week is in Cardiff with Bale fit and the Austrians visiting- both need the win to stay in touch whilst Ireland host Serbia 4 days later.
Poland have dominated this group and hold a 6 point lead but face a tricky away tie to Denmark. It looks like Poland will win the group regardless with Denmark duking it out with Montenegro for 2nd, the Danes travel to Montenegro in October but with the lowest place runner up missing out all together it could be academic
Playoffs: None (worst placed runner up) Montenegro to finish 2nd.
England look comfortable here, facing the open goal of Malta in Valetta on Friday night. Slovakia & Slovenia are facing each other the same day with Slovakia then visiting Wembley the following Monday. The intrigue will come in Lithuania where Scotland are the visitors, having got themselves back into the group taking 4 points from home games with Slovenia & England. This is a banana skin waiting to fling the Scots over their kilts- they need a win to stay in touch.
The game of the week takes place in Spain, with the 2010 Champions hosting 2006 winners Italy- tied for the lead and only separated by Spain’s marginally better goal difference. Qualifiers are rarely bigger than this with the Italians in surprisingly confident mood; I have a sneaking suspicion they’ll do it. There are 4 other teams in the group but frankly no one cares- better luck with the 2020 draw!
Belgium are cruising to Russia (not literally) with their remaining home matches against Gibraltar & Cyprus although they’ll need to finish it off minus Eden Hazard. A revitalised Greece & Bosnia-Heregovina are fighting it out for second, Greece’s slightly easier run in gives them the edge.
Those pesky Icelandic’s are at it again, they’ve beaten Croatia and are only behind on goal difference. But this is a close group with Ukraine & Turkey also in the mix. Turkey travel to Kiev in the key game this week. Croatia and Iceland both face local derbies of sorts (Kosovo & Finland respectively) but should win.